Talking about Art in English


Going to a gallery
permanent collectionthe works of art which are always on display in a gallery
temporary exhibitiona group of artworks shown together for a fixed period
stage/hold an exhibitiondisplay a group of artworks to the public
blockbustera very popular exhibition of work by a well-known artist or artists
openingan event at which people can see an exhibition for the first time
new acquisitiona work of art that the gallery has bought recently
piecesworks of art

 Most cities and large towns have a ____________ that is funded by the government. Public galleries generally have a _________________ (which may be free) and also _____________ (which usually have an entrance fee). Large public galleries, such as the Tate Modern in London, ____________at least one _______________exhibition each year. If you are a member of the gallery, you may be invited to attend an __________. You might also hear about _________________ before anyone else.

As well as public galleries, there are commercial galleries at which the artworks are on sale. Especially in small towns, they tend to show ________ by local artists.

Categorising works of art

defy categorisationbe difficult to clearly describe as one thing or another
medium (plural: media)the material/technique used to create a work of art
new mediamaterials/techniques that are modern and technological
performancethe artist uses bodies, voices and/or movement to make the artwork
conceptualthe idea is the most important thing about the artwork
installationthe artist puts objects into an existing space, e.g. the room of a gallery
textilesmaterials such as cotton, silk and wool
ceramicsclay objects which are made hard by baking at high temperatures
printmakingcreating images by preparing a block of (e.g.) wood, applying ink to it, then printing onto (e.g.) paper

Though lots of artists would like to believe their work ________________, in reality we tend to discuss art based on the _______________ used. Well-known categories of artwork include drawing, painting, sculpture and photography, but today all kinds of novel forms can be found both inside and outside of galleries. These include video and __________________ pieces; ______________ pieces; ___________ pieces; and ____________. Other popular media include ___________________ and _____________, while works in ________________ combine different materials and techniques.

Special notes on drawing and painting

Drawing and painting are the oldest of the visual arts, so they have lots of specific vocabulary of their own.

Drawing is typically done in graphite (i.e. pencil), charcoalpastel or ink. A quick drawing, especially one in which the artist tries to copy something in the real world, is known as a sketch; the art of sketching naked human models is called life drawing, while an artwork that shows a naked person is called a nude. Important skills for drawing include composition and perspective.

Paintings are commonly created with oilwatercolour or acrylic on a surface of paper or canvas. Traditional types of paintings include portrait, landscape and still life, though abstract works have also been popular since the 20th century.

compositionthe skill of arranging multiple elements in a pleasing way
oilthick, slow-drying paint that contains oil
watercolourthin, quick-drying paint that contains water
acrylicquick-drying paint that contains man-made ingredients
canvasstrong cloth that is used to make tents and boat sails
still lifea picture of a group of objects, such as flowers or food
abstractcommunicating with colour and shape instead of with realistic images

Working in the art world

As well as artists themselves, lots of different people keep the art world moving including agentsdealers and critics. Within a gallery setting, you might also expect to find a director who is in charge overall, curatorshandlers and assistants (also called attendants).

agentsomeone who represents and promotes artists
dealersomeone who buys and sells works of art
criticsomeone who writes about art, especially reviews of exhibitions
curatorsomeone who selects and presents artworks for exhibitions
handlersomeone who carefully packs and unpacks works of art
gallery assistantsomeone who greets visitors and answers questions

Discussing works of art

If you fancy yourself as a critic, there are certain words and phrases that occur frequently in writing and discussions about art. A selection of them is given below, but the best way to develop this kind of vocabulary is to read reviews and art books as often as you can.

Positive descriptions

Her work . . .

  • is moving – it is effective at making people feel sadness or sympathy
  • is evocative – it brings strong images or memories to mind
  • is visionary – it considers the future in an intelligent way
  • really spoke to me – it connected with my own life experiences

Neutral descriptions

Their work . . .

  • is bold/delicate – it gives the impression of being physically strong/weak
  • is controversial – it divides public opinion
  • is Instagrammable  – people love to take photos of and with it
  • is a bit out there – it is weird and/or hard to understand, but not necessarily in a bad way

Negative descriptions

His work . . .

  • is disturbing – it is likely to cause someone to be offended or upset
  • is derivative – it seems to copy existing works of art
  • is amateurish – it does not show a high level of skill
  • left me cold – I had no emotional or intellectual response to it

Yes, but is it art . . . ?

Painting and sculpture are obvious examples of fine arts – but what about other visual forms such as architecture, graphic design, video games and graffiti? Does it make sense to separate the fine and applied arts? Who decides the meaning of art, anyway?

fine artsactivity that produces objects with no practical function
graphic designcombining images and texts to make (e.g.) magazines and adverts
applied artsactivity that produces functional objects whose appearance is also important, such as furniture or jewellery

What a load of rubbish

inaccessibledifficult for ordinary people to understand
pretentioustrying to be more serious or important than it really is
clichéa phrase that is used often and shows a lack of original thought
roll your eyesmove your eyeballs upwards or in a circle to show you think something is boring or annoying

Not everyone likes art, of course. Some people find modern art, in particular, inaccessible and pretentious. A number of clichés can often be heard in response to pieces of contemporary art – most of which would cause artists and art-lovers to roll their eyes.

  • My five-year-old could have done that! – it looks like a child made it
  • Look at the state of that! – it looks messy, as though no skill was needed to make it
  • Money for old rope! – there is nothing new, special or interesting about this
  • What a load of rubbish! – said in response to any art that the speaker does not like
arty typespeople who dress and/or behave in a way that shows a strong interest in the arts

 The art world is a strange place, but the surest way to fit in – apart from wearing all-black outfits and rings as big as your hands – is to practice speaking like the arty types hanging around galleries. So ciao for now, darling, and see you at tomorrow’s opening!